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03 IV-2004: 06
New translation, the Magna Carta


oil 8

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the politics of irresponsibility —
No, the beaches are not clean
the Prestige, May 2003

26.05.2003 While both French and Spanish tourist authorities boast that their beaches are cleaner than ever before (France) or that there are only a dozen or so beaches left to be cleaned (Northern Spain), eye-witnesses testify that this is untrue.

Lumps of oil are still washing up on ‘clean’ French beaches, and even into marine lakes, along the Aquitaine coast. Walking barefoot in the sand leaves feet soiled by buried toxic fuel oil. In Spain, Galician volunteers still scrape rocks sort-of-clean, one by one.

Cleaning the sand in either country is done merely by scraping and sifting the surface layer, any oil that has been buried by the surf (as is frequently the case) is not found and remains as a poisonous trap for any beach-user. Sticky oil may be scraped painstakingly from each rock and stone, but much is still left behind—jets of detergent and water just disperse the mess elsewhere. And vast quantities of oil continue to foul and clag the Galician seabed, despite professional divers having removed oil from some selected inlets.

the politics of irresponsibility —
Diverting blame

The American Bureau of Shipping [ABS] has issued a succinct statement regarding Spain’s attempt by litigation to divert blame in the Prestige disaster.

Spain’s litigation

“alleges the American Bureau of Shipping "was responsible for the technical supervision which allowed the Prestige to continue navigating, despite the defects it showed." ”

However, as the President and Chief Operating Officer of ABS, Robert Somerville, pointed out in his submission to the public hearing held at the European Parliament on 19 March 2003,

“It is only the shipowner that has day-to-day control of the vessel and knowledge of its condition.

“The class surveyor [in this case, ABS] normally only attends the vessel once in a twelve month period and can therefore only attest to the condition, according to his judgment, at that time.”

“The last annual survey of the Prestige was conducted over a period of 11 days in Dubai in May of 2002, 6 months prior to the casualty.”

“The last Special Survey of the Prestige was conducted over a period of 46 days in Guangzhou, China in April of 2001, reflecting the increasing rigor of these inspections as a vessel ages.”

[Note that Special Surveys occur every five years, and require the ship be put into dry dock for an extensive survey of its structure.]

As well as the normal audits made of surveys, after the Prestige sinking ABS obtained a further independent audit of its surveys of the Prestige. This page on the ABS website has links to the audit and to many other internal and external documents concerning the Prestige.

20.05.2003 Mad, sad or bad—Spanish government delusions and the real world According to the Spanish government, both locally in Galicia and centrally in Madrid,

  1. this marine disaster was caused by, and so should be paid for by, anyone other than themselves;
  2. the Prestige was a floating dustbin;
  3. government actions were blameless;
  4. the beaches are clean, fishing is safe—after all the oil just “disappears”.

However, these premises do not in any way accord with reality. Are Spanish politicians under collective delusions, and so mad or sad, or are they just lying to save their political sinecures, and therefore bad?

The evidence

Premise 1: the disaster was caused by someone else [Spanish link]—after Captain Scapegoat, this time it is the turn of the “most rigorous inspection firm” that classified the vessel to be seaworthy.

The Spanish government is going to court in New York to try and sue the Prestige’s classification company American Bureau of Shipping for 2 billion euros - for what it calls ‘fixed costs’ (services provided by the Navy and local government). This does not include damages relating to the local environment, tourism and public health.

But on what grounds? It was not the ABS who ordered a damaged large ship, leaking heavy fuel oil, be dragged up and down the Galician coast during a major storm, against all expert advice and common sense.

Premise 2: A floating dustbin? Before the USA banned single-hulled tankers from its waters in 2000 (because of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska),

“... the Prestige [...] had regularly traveled to the United States until it was phased out in 2000, docking in ports from New York to Baltimore and Texas. Coast Guard inspectors boarded it 36 times between 1990 and 2000, each time essentially giving it a clean bill of health. The vessel passed inspection by the United States' most rigorous inspection firm [ABS] five months before it sank.”

“The disaster was heightened because no government gave the ship safe harbor after it began leaking. But the vessel had recently passed inspection by a private ship-inspection organization: the American Bureau of Shipping in Houston. ABS's internal investigation suggested the ship began leaking after a structural weakness in its hull was exposed to punishing waves.”
[There has been speculation that a floating object damaged the ship.]

“ Coast Guard inspector Winters agreed: "If you look through our records, (the Prestige) didn't have a horrible history. ”

Premise 3: Don’t blame us, we only run the country [Spanish link]
The Socialist Party secretary general, while in Vigo, Galicia, highlighted the Spanish government’s failed management of the situation after the Prestige sank. Their incompetence included the shambolic mobilisation of the volunteers, a result of the various ministers being skilled at “hands-off” management.

To this Fraga [1] [Spanish link], the head of the Galician government, responded, “more important matters should be discussed than either the Prestige or the war in Iraq”.

Premise 4: Everything is under control [Spanish link], the beaches are clean, you can start fishing again.

According to Fraga, “the Prestige wreck is not a serious danger, the still leaking oil (one to two tonnes a day) is under control, and the wreck can withstand deep sea pressures for a long time”. Is this why the Spanish government has had to ask for the French research submarine Nautile to “resume work on sealing the ship's leaking hull in coming weeks”?
[Note, the experts’ expectation is that the hull will collapse under the sustained pressure.]

Meanwhile, Spanish Greenpeace [Spanish link] denounced their government’s incompetence, citing the situation on the coasts affected by the Prestige, where beaches are still not clean. Greenpeace called on the Spanish government to take up its civic ecological responsibilities regarding the 35,000 tonnes of oil still contained in the sunken hulk, two miles under the sea. According to Greenpeace, the Spanish government deliberately concealed information, and ignored the experts—the scientific community.

What of the oil [Spanish link], that is is “under control” and “disappears”?

After decomposing and losing part of its aromatic components, it descends from the water surface to the seabed, to be deposited in pancakes about 15 cms diameter on the Galician continental shelf.

“This sad discovery was made last December by a team of scientists from the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, investigating the consequences of the Prestige sinking. At first, they could find no trace of oil. But eventually they discovered that it was 10 to 15 miles out from the Galician coast, from Fisterra, Laxe and cap Vilan, at a depth of 150 to 250 metres. The pancakes were a puree mixed with fish.”

Analysis of the Prestige oil [Spanish link] by the French research organisation CEDRE shows that 40% of the oil is composed of toxic and carcinogenic aromatic hydrocarbons. Experts are unanimous that these will stay in the food chain. As well as the clean-up volunteers having skin and respiratory problems as a result of exposure to the oil, local inhabitants breathing in the compound could suffer from allergies or from asthma.

In fact, the oil is falling to the seabed in small drops, making a carcinogenic sediment which experts from Greenpeace have shown tends to stay in animal fats, including those of fish. Extreme caution will have to be taken with any seafoods from the region.

And the bird life?

“ Latest news is that the total number of oiled birds recovered from beaches in Spain, France and Portugal between 16th November 2002 and 16th January 2003 was 13,221 (3,873 live and 9,348 dead) belonging to 62 species.

“Based on these figures the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO/BirdLife) estimates that the total number of birds affected during the first two months of the Prestige oil spill was between 65,000 and 130,000 making the Prestige oil spill the most significant oil spill in Atlantic Europe since the Erika spill in 1999.” [In total, 44,000 dead birds were found as a result of the Erika spill, making an estimated total death-roll of 100-150,000 birds.]

Figures in mid-May (after six months) now give an estimate of between 100,000 and 200,000 birds dead so far from the Prestige spill.

“ "The Spanish population of Guillemot has been hardest hit by the Prestige oil spill ", said Alejandro Sanchez, Director of the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO/BirdLife). "We predict the Guillemot is now very likely to become extinct as a breeding bird in Spain. If this happens the Prestige oil spill will be remembered as a tragedy for Spain's wildlife as well as its people".

“The total Iberian population of Guillemot is 10-25 pairs with only two tiny colonies of 5-11 pairs in Spain, right in the area of Galicia affected by the Prestige oil spill: Vilano Cape and Sisargas Islands, on the Costa de la Muerte, both of which are protected as part of the European Union's Natura 2000 protected areas network.

“The total number of dead Guillemots found in Spain since the oil spill is 12, with approximately 40 live oiled Guillemots also in the recovery centres.

“To date two Critically Endangered Balearic Shearwaters have been found dead and one alive. SEO/BirdLife say that although the number of Balearic Shearwaters found oiled is small, the damage done to their inshore habitat has been severe, affecting the ecosystem on which sardines and anchovies - their main food - depend.”

I can only conclude from this evidence is that the Spanish government, as well as being mad/sad, is most definitely bad—a government may not have the luxury of being this irresponsible.

Although this page from the European Environment Agency is no longer being updated, it gives a good historical summary of the Prestige disaster and its ecological impact.

[1] Manuel Fraga Iribarne: founder of the right-wing Popular Party, whose leader, José Maria Aznar is Spain’s current Prime Minister.

11.05.2003 Pollution from Finisterre to Finistère, and who will pay? It has just come to my notice that, not only is the amount of oil spilt from the Prestige about twice as much as that from the Erika, spilt off Brittany in 1999, but the Prestige spill has so far affected the coast and seawaters of three countries: Spain, Portugal and France. (The Erika only affected one country, France, and over a much smaller length of coastline.)

Lumps (smaller) and pancakes (larger) of oil, which analysis shows to have come from the Prestige tanker sunk over 700 km/440 miles away off Cap Finisterre, are now washing up on Brittany beaches, in Finistère. Local councils, who previously had to clear up after the Erikaspill, are now hurrying to clean beaches before the holiday season really starts.

The International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPCF; FIPOL in French, FIDAC in Spanish) will give compensation that is 15% of the assessed losses claimed by the victims, currently counted as being the Spanish, French and Portuguese authorities, the various local fishing and tourist industries, and effected inhabitants. Just 15% of claims will be paid at the moment, because the IOPCF only has 171 million € / £ 130 million funds to cover the claims of something approaching 1 billion € / £7.6 million.

In the meantime, Spain intends to sue “those truly responsible for the Prestige disaster”, that is, according to Spain, the stricken Prestige’s classification company (who provide the seaworthiness licence) and the shipowner’s London insurance brokers. According to their own ‘estimates’, Spain has so far spent 328 million € in ‘general expenses’.

But, as the ship’s registration authority, the Bahamas, points out, in the first place it was Spain who forced the unhappy, leaking tanker to be dragged up and down the Galician coast, off Cap Finister, for six days in a full storm. And we know what happened next, the poor thing broke up and sank after that extended battering by powerful Atlantic storm rollers, as the Spanish government had been warned.

The Spanish government, as part of their systematic purpose of delaying real action on the 38,000 tonnes of fuel oil still in the wreck until after the elections, has again commissioned the French research submarine, Nautile, to do yet more patching on the wreck of the Prestige, leaking 3500 metres below the sea.

Scientists from the Spanish Universities of Santiago de Compostela (in Galicia) and Barcelona, have released the conclusions of their recent environmental investigation into the Galician coastline affected by this filthy oil pollution.

The results in no way reflect the optimistic gloss of clean beaches that comes from local and central Spanish government. The environmental scientists have found that, although the beaches look clean superficially, there are layers of fuel oil buried beneath the ‘clean’ sand, while the rocks and cliffs (nesting place of many seabirds) cannot be truly cleaned. The sea bottom is in similar state, and the local plant ecosystem has been destabilised. There is currently no objective criteria for classifying a beach as ‘clean’.

The scientists estimate that a‘profound cleaning’ scheme, much more rigorous and complicated is necessary; instead of the current operations of scraping sand and rocks, or just leaving the sea to loosen the oil and wash it back into the water. Such deep cleaning could take between two and four years.

06.05.2003 Almost six months, and still the Prestige haunts Spain and France Southern Brittany, over 700 km (437 miles) away from the leaking wreck of the tanker Prestige, is the latest recipient of large quantities of oil from this broken ship, sunk last November off the North Spanish coast. Six South Brittany beaches have all had quantities of well-aged tar and oil-covered rubbish washed up in the last several days. Official analyses confirmed that this was not oil from an illegal tanker wash-out operation. Now the local councils must clean the beaches in haste before the holiday season fully starts.

Concerned Galician citizens demonstrated again in Santiago de Compostela, demanding that a definitive solution be found and rapid action taken regarding the polluting sunken hull off their coast. Well, of course, nothing will happen until after the municipal and regional elections later this month; maybe it will become someone else’s problem. And the (State) oil company, Repsol, contracted to remove the 40,000 or so tonnes of heavy fuel oil from the two parts of the wreck, 3500 metres (2 miles) below the sea surface, expects only to do an experimental operation in September. Meanwhile the wreck continues to leak one to two tonnes of poisonous heavy fuel oil each day.

There is meant to be a public inquiry going on in Galicia, to find out who was responsible for this major environmental and economic disaster. But it so ’public’ that practically no information finds its way into the public domain. And that includes the fate of Captain Scapegoat, still ‘under arrest’ (he has to report daily to a La Coruna police station) for acting responsibly regarding his ship and the cargo.

Related material
the politics of irresponsibility (March 2003)
the Prestige debacle (March 2003)
more articles

the web address for this article is


Related material

the politics of irresponsibility (March 2003)

the Prestige debacle (March 2003)


more articles




the politics of irresponsibility —
Silence in court, but the Spanish clean-up goes on
the Prestige, April 2003

24.04.2003 No new information has leaked out from the official Inquiry being held in Galicia, although the wreck of the Prestige continues to leak oil which then miraculously ‘disappears’. Well, mostly — a large slick arrived on the North Spanish coast last week, in time to chase Easter holidaymakers to the visibly clean beaches of France.

A Norwegian company, Statoil ASA, is helping the Spanish national oil company, Repsol, to work out how to empty the sunken tanker’s holds of about 40,000 tonnes of filthy fuel oil.

“Repsol is due to submit recommendations to the authorities in May on how it plans to do this work. Retrieving almost 40,000 tonnes of heating oil will probably start next year.”

So, the broken wreck of the Prestige will have another year in which to continue dribbing out its foul cargo at a rate of two or so tonnes every day..

North Spanish beaches continue to be cleaned. According to official Spanish figures, of the 1,074 beaches, 764 are now clean, while 270 have oily muck on the rocks and underwater, with a further 30 beaches still to clean. Daily figures for the amounts of oil cleared up by the teams on land and at sea can be found here.

A Spanish robot submarine from Valencia will be inspecting the Galician coast to see how much Prestige oil pollution is on the sea floor, in an attempt to reassure local fishermen. The Nereus IV, able to work in depths of from 10 to 2,500 metres, will be making ten sweeps of 40 miles along the coast.Twelve lamps mounted on the sub will enable video recordings to be made, using a camera with a 5-metre viewing range. The work is expected to take 17 days.

Since the Prestige sunk last November, 15,977 birds have been found dead on Spanish and French coasts, said the Spanish government in answer to a parliamentary question at the beginning of April.

“Another 5,561 birds, from some 30 different species, have been found alive after being affected by the spill”

Of course, these figures are just for the birds actually found on the beaches. According to various estimates, the Spanish government’s figures could be anything from 2% to 70% of the total number of birds affected—that is, no-one knows how many birds have actually been affected.

12.04.2003 Spanish government fall-guy appointed Galicia At the Inquiry in Galicia to determine those responsible for one of the worst oil spills ever, a state prosecutor more aligned with central government has been appointed.

Next, José Luis Lopez-Sors, the Director General of the Merchant Navy, has become government fall-guy—by saying it was he alone who took the decision regarding the fate of the Prestige (as previously reported).

The only independent reports available are from the Nunca Mais lawyer present in court, as this official Inquiry is being held in private session. From these reports, the French action group, Association Aquitaine Alternatives, conclude that that the three main government witnesses—Harbour Master, DG of Merchant Navy and central Government Representative—have conferred beforehand, with the result that just one individual takes the blame.

Nor do members of Nunca Mais, the Galician victims group, agree with these witness statements. They point out that it is hardly credible that only one person, especially one who now admits having no experience of this sort of situation, would have been able to take such an important decision. (Do remember, that originally, the central Spanish government vaunted their prior ‘consultation’ of scientists.) Nunca Mais reasons that the sole reason for this defence strategy must be to absolve the Spanish government of any responsibility for the Prestige shambles.

Now to see how much more whitewash the Spanish government will attempt to splash everywhere—a change from the poisonous black oil they have smeared over the Spanish coast and abroad.

France the Prefect [central government appointee] of Les Landes (one of the three most affected coastal French departements) has lifted the ban on sea-swimming. Now it is up to each mayor to decide when to allow bathers into the sea.
[source: Sud-Ouest]

04.04.2003 Pass the hot potato—whose fingers will be burnt? At the Commission of Investigation being held in Galicia (remember the central Spanish government dares not hold such an event), is unfolding a shameful waltz of shift the blame, duck the responsibility, avoid the awkward questions.

Like a gang of guilty schoolboys, the various irresponsible bureaucrats and politicians of Spain spin their weak defences.

The Director General of the Merchant Navy admits ordering the leaking tanker, the Prestige, out into a raging storm, where it later broke up and sank, spilling over half its 77,000 tonne cargo of poisonous heavy fuel oil, leaving the rest in its holds as a ticking time-bomb.

But no worries, it is all alright really. He did not want to risk the lives or the health of the population of Galica. He was going to prevent any more oil, than had already been split, washing up on the coast. In any case, what he had done gave more time to fight against the pollution, and he prevented all of the cargo being spilt into the sea to then pollute the beaches. Besides which, of the 40,000 tonnes of oil spilt, 30,000 tonnes have been clean up from the sea, 30 times more than was recovered with the Erika, [Let us forget that the Erika only spilt 10,000 tonnes, a quarter of the mess so far from the Prestige.] The Director General’s decision was correct, given the ship’s poor condition and its “haemorrhaging”, and the weather conditions—in similar circumstances, he would make the same decision again. Oh, and in case that was not enough to persuade the court to ignore his incompetence .... he is trying to blame Captain Scapegoat, for refusing to co-operate and follow the Director General’s orders.

Next, it is the turn of the Central government representative:
Be clear, although the the central government watches over regional decisions, and even discusses them with the region, those decisions are made by the region—they are nothing to do with us, Boss. Besides which, the government did not involve itself in decisions that were outside its competence.

Back to the Director General:
The central government representative was kept constantly informed by bodies such as the Coastal Rescue, the Civil Guard, The Naval Forces, the Red Cross.

[Excuse me, I thought the various official bodies consulted ‘scientists’ before making decisions. Perhaps I missed something somewhere.]

Anyway, it was the Harbour Master of La Coruna who was in charge of the actually towing out of the tanker, and he knows what he’s doing. If there was a problem, then the towing company, Smit, the ship’s owners and the ship’s classification company would have reacted. [Umm, Smit did. As for the other two, their representative on the spot, Captain Scapegoat, did.]

Besides, says some technical ‘expert’ witness, towing ships out to sea has worked in all other disasters of the Galician coast. [Umm, but at least two of these ‘disasters’ took place within the port of La Coruna. So of what exactly is this ‘expert’ speaking?]

So now we can all be reassured. The Director General of the Merchant Navy made the right decision to send the Prestige to its messy death in 3500 metres of fish-filled ocean. It was not his fault, nor that of central government, let alone that of the Harbour Master, that Captain Scapegoat was trying to take the obviously correct action of anchoring the ship inshore, in order to prevent his vessel falling apart and spilling a large proportion of its cargo.

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the politics of irresponsibility (March 2003)

the Prestige debacle (March 2003)


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